Review: Life Is a Dream (Vitalist Theatre)

     
     

A different dream work

     
     

A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

     
Vitalist Theatre presents
   
  
Life Is a Dream
   
   
Written by Calderon de la Barca
Directed by Elizabeth Carlin-Metz
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru June 11  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The greatest gift from Spain’s Golden Age of theater, Calderon de la Barca’s masterpiece from 1635 can hold its own with Shakespeare’s later romances. Nonetheless, Life Is a Dream puts a very Spanish emphasis on the struggle between honor and duty and the animalistic versus the humane. Helen Edmundson’s new version is the perfect platform for Elizabeth Carlin-Metz’ passionate, persuasive revival, a show to justify Vitalist Theatre’s well-earned name.

Life Is A Dream - Vitalist Theatre 3The story is a combination fairy tale and parable: A future king is tested to see if his natural nobility can help him to rise above the worst adversity. Haunted by a prophecy that his son might destroy him, Basilio, king of Poland, has his heir Prince Segismundo imprisoned in a hidden tower, wearing chains instead of a crown. Basilio resolves to give the prince a test to prove whether he really is the monster that was predicted by creating a waking dream: Segismundo is seemingly restored to power and the king watches to see if this caged beast can rise to royalty. If Segismundo can put the common good above his fury over decades of mistreatment, he’s one of nature’s noblemen and Poland’s future.

The play’s power kicks in as Segismundo must wrestle with his dark demons, defy fate in order to assert free will, and overcome the desire for revenge and turn it into a quest for justice. He does it on behalf of Rosaura, a noble lady wronged by Segismundo’s cousin Astolfo, wrongly engaged to Segismundo’s true intended, the Princess Estrella. If Segismundo’s dream has come true, this heir now realizes how fragile life is and how death ends all dreams.

Baroque and often beautiful, Calderon’s ornate language abounds in glorious declamation, intense soliloquies and almost operatic flights of rhetoric, a treacherously grand style that modern audiences could find offputting. Happily, the Vitalist actors are completely in control of this material. They know their characters from the inside out: These speeches carry an ardor and conviction that makes whatever seems literary to live and sing. (But for some this still just might be a bit too lyrical not to be set to music.)

     
A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi
A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

You see the fervor best in Paul Dunckel’s unstoppable Segismundo, as intense and consistent a declaration of independence as any role requires. Without pushing any passion over the cliff, Dunckel stays on fire throughout. In contrast, Madrid St. Angelo finely calibrates Basilio’s divided consciousness between father and monarch. Vanessa Greenway is her own action figure as intrepid-because-scorned Rosaura, while, as aspirants to the Polish throne, Gregory Isaac and Lyndsay Rose Kane stamp the play’s rises and reversals with their own authentic reactions. BF Helman gives Segismundo’s keeper all the conflicts the situation warrants. Finally, Ivan Vega provides comic relief as a Sancho Panza-like servant with a common touch amid extraordinary events.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

A scene from Vitalist Theatre's production of "Life Is A Dream". Photo credit: Anthony Aicardi

Vitalist Theatre’s Life Is a Dream runs through June 11th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm.  Tickets are $20-$25, and can be purchased by phone (773-327-5252) or online at www.stage773.com. For more information, visit vitalisttheatre.org.

  
  

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Review: Cold Cold Feet (Diamante Productions)

  
  

Parade of nuptial mayhem brings nonstop laughter

  
  

(L to R) Florence Ann Romano (Monday), Laura Rush (June), Michael Woods (Carl), and Jennifer T. Grubb (April). Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

  
Diamante Productions present
  
Cold Cold Feet
  
Written and directed by Tony Fiorentino
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Unwritten vows, sexual addiction, stripper trio, dove droppings:  when potential disasters threaten to crash his wedding, a groom calls it quits.  Diamante Productions presents Cold Cold FeetOn the eve of his nuptials, Benny is freaking out.  As his brother Carl tries to get him to the church on time, the strippers arrive for a belated bachelor celebration.  While Benny enjoys whipped cream covered shenanigans in the bedroom, Carl stalls the wedding party in the living room.  The pimp, the sister, the mother, the priest, the bride, the dove choreographer… everyone wants to know what the delay is.  An anxiety-ridden Carl satisfies each with a different story.  Multiple charades play out in escalating absurdity.  Cold Cold Feet is a hot hot comedy!

Playwright and director Tony Fiorentino has revamped his popular 2006 production.  Based on his own ‘always a groomsmen never a groom‘ experience, Fiorentino creates familial wedding chaos. Within that world, he uses clever dialogue and characters to make the farce even wittier.  Serving as the director, he ensures the execution of the continuous double entendres nails the comedic moment.  The show starts slow with a mean-spirited banter that doesn’t quite build the brotherly bond. Cue the strippers! Start lying!  Once the parade of mayhem begins, the laughter is unstoppable.  The entire ensemble adds to the punch line with deadpan deliveries and slapstick timing.

Joe Bianco (Benny, front), Jennifer T. Grubb  (April, left), Ann Romano (Monday, center), Laura Rush (June, right) and Michael Woods (Carl, back). Photo credit: Michael Brosilow.

Leading the burlesque antics, Michael Woods (Carl) is hysterical as the double-talking fibber.  Woods races around the subject and the room in a zany frenzy.  Joe Bianco (Benny) transforms from nervous to out-of-control to sincere with charm.  Bianco comes across as a tool until he endears with a sweet how-I-met-my-bride story.  The strippers aka “The Time of Your Life” are frolicking, kind-hearted whores. These exotic dancers know how to have fun.  Laura Rauh (June) plays it perfectly dim-witted. Florence Ann Romano (Monday) is an energetic spitfire.  And Jennifer T. DGrubb (April) whips it good as an artist.  Their pimp, Rob Grabowski (Harvey) is the imposing enforcer humbled with intestinal issues. His interactions with Brigitte Ditmars (Mary) and Marie Goodkin (Wanda) are hilarious potty humor.  With misinformation and mistaken identities, Ditmars and Goodkin forcefully go off on Grabowski with riotous results.  Playing funny caricatures, Mike O’Brien (Father Murphy) is a gentle, flask-toting priest and Joel Thomas (Nigel) is an over-the-top dove choreographer.  The bridezilla, Kieran Welsh-Phillips (Lindsay) kicks ass in the final scene.  Welsh-Phillips plays it with tough love, bringing a satisfying end to the jittery hijinks.

Roger Wykes (Scenic Designer) places the story in a Vegas hotel suite.  It’s a large room with exits to a terrace, bedroom, bathroom and hallway.  The multiple doors add to the almost-got-caught tomfoolery.  Costume Designer Emma Weber dresses the cast up in an array of Viva Las Vegas wear.  The sexy underwear and not-so-sexy poker style boxers contrast nicely with the church attire. What happens in Vegas…?  A groom gets tripped up on his way down the aisle.  His family gets caught up in his pre-wedding caper.  Cold Cold Feet engages with a commitment to comedy.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Marital mayhem abounds in Diamante Productions

Cold Cold Feet continues through June 5th at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25, and can be purchased by phone (773-327-5252) or online HERECold Cold Feet has a running time of ninety minutes with no intermission.

Photos by Michael Brosilow 

  
  

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Review: The King and I (Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago)

     
     

Getting to love you

     
     

Brianna-Borger and Wayne Hu

  
Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago presents
  
The King and I
  
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by L. Walter Stearns
Music Directed by Eugene Dizon
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

L. Walter Stearns’ final staging for Porchlight Music Theatre (he’s moving on to manage the Mercury Theatre) is a splendid swan song. Efficient but never merely dutiful, this tender-loving revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 treasure lets the talent on this stage honor the brilliance on the page. Despite lacking the budgets of Marriott Theatre’s 2000 revival or the most recent one at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2007, Porchlight never allows less to be lacking.

Erik Kaiko as Lun Tha and Jillian Jocson as Tuptim - King and IBesides, look at what they’re working with! It’s rewarding how much the R & H musicals amplify each other, yielding a whole much bigger than its parts. In The King and I we see a British schoolteacher who changes the children around her and shapes the future through her enlightened tutelage of the Crown Prince of Siam. Anna Leonowens anticipates Maria Von Trapp, an Austrian governess who changes the children and around and escapes the present to pursue the sound of music. Likewise, Flower Drum Song carefully chronicles the cultural changes in a community. Above all, like South Pacific, King and I delivers an action lesson in tolerance. Anna and the King learn from each pother, he forbearance and humility before the facts of life, love and death, she the discipline and tradition required to keep a nation together and, more importantly, unconquered.

The closest comparison outside the R & H canon is, interestingly, Fiddler on the Roof: Both musicals deal with central characters coping with change during convulsive historical periods, desperate to preserve tradition (and power) while wryly accepting the future, as much on their terms as possible.

The King’s transformation (and, by implication, that of Siam) is accomplished in stunning songs like “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” that win us over from the first note. Well worth the succession from Gertrude Lawrence to Deborah Kerr to Donna Murphy, Brianna Borger’s warmly engaging Anna brings quicksilver resilience and five different kinds of love to her widow, mother, tutor, confidante and lover. Her patter songs, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” crackles with contagious indignation and hard-core spunk. The first Asian I’ve seen playing the King, burly Wayne Hu stamps the King with wizard timing, wry irascibility and bedrock dignity. The fact that he’s no infallible leader only makes his aspirations to authority more poignant and less threatening.

It’s impossible to overpraise Jillian Anne Jocson’s lovely and lyrical Tuptim, enchanting in “I Have Dreamed” and “We Kiss in Shadow” with ardent Erik Kaiko as her doomed beloved, or Kate Garassino’s elegant Lady Thiang, wisdom wrapped in reticence. The Siamese wives and children (here reduced to six) are marvels of grace in energy and as comely as a palace frieze. Likewise Bill Morey’s elaborate Eastern costumes, their shimmering and sumptuous fabrics lit by Mac Vaughey with what must be new colors, and Ian Zywica’s unit set with its Oriental throne room, filigreed archways, and burnished floor. (Flanking the king are dualistic symbols of East and West—a chess set and a statue of the Buddha.) Brenda Didier’s choreography, faithful to Jerome Robbins, turns “‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ Ballet” into a cascade of astonishment and artful reinvention.

For purists like me there’s one cavil: This revival’s two-piano accompaniment, however beautifully played by Eugene Dizon and Allison Hendrix, is nonetheless a letdown, robbing the songs of the rich orchestrations Rodgers intended. Less crucial, the delightful scene in which the ladies of the court try to maneuver inside European crinoline ballgowns and corsets is necessarily omitted. But new to me is the royal school’s anthem sung by Anna and her princely pupils, as well as a charming reprise of “A Puzzlement” sung by the sons of the principals that extends the cultural clash to the next generation. You win some, you lose some.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Brianna Borger, Dylan Lainez, Tatum Pearlman, Lydia Hurrelbrink

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Review: Wreckage / Brutal Imagination (Caffeine Theatre)

     
     

Caffeine’s paired plays offer high concept with uneven material

     
     

Ian Daniel McLaren and Tim Martin in Wreckage

     

Caffeine Theatre presents

             
       
Wreckage Brutal Imagination
     
Written by Caridad Svich
Directed by Joanie Schultz 
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info
Written by Cornelius Eady
Directed by Jason Beck
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru April 17 | tickets: $20 | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Cross-cultural playwright Caridad Svich often takes characters straight from classical theater and advances their story past death itself, into a new incarnation or a new dimension or perhaps a murky purgatory, where their past haunts their present existence yet remains the vaguest of memories. Disconnection and forgetfulness reign alongside repeated abuse; violent emotions unleashed in the past mold perceptions and choices, propelling the characters forward into an equally perilous future. Her 12 Ophelias: a play with broken songs has Ophelia emerge from watery depths to relive her relationship with Hamlet, renamed as Rude Boy. In Wreckage, produced by Caffeine Theatre under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the sons of Medea awaken on a beach, stunned and with no clear recall of their murder at the hands of their mother. Even in the afterlife, though, they can’t quite get away from dark, manipulative women or being exploited for sexual or other uses.

Cornelius Eady’s verse play Brutal Imagination also contains a mother murdering her sons. Yet, under Jason Beck’s direction, it takes on an entirely different aspect in the reflection of the Medea myth—it focuses not so much on the murder of young boys as the murder of black male identity through repeated narratives that dehumanize and, ultimately, criminalize black men.

Stephen H. Carmody’s intelligent scenic design and Thomas Dixon’s sound design accommodate both plays brilliantly. Gorgeously evocative projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson) amplify the abstract, fragmented pieces of beach onstage. The set shifts with only minor variations from one play to the other, signifying unity between the two productions that is quite sophisticated.

If only the material was matched as evenly as the production’s visual conception. With Wreckage, Svich’s poetic dialogue excessively pounds out the torrid language of bad romance. Once the First Son (Tim Martin) and the Second Son (Ian Daniel McLaren) become separated, they are thrown into twisted sexual situations. The First becomes adopted by a Woman (played with powerhouse glamour by Dana Black), who feminizes the boy and uses him as a pawn in manipulative emotional and sexual games with her Husband (Jeremy Van Meter). The Second Son becomes drawn into a life of sex traffic by the Nurse (Sean Thomas), now a pandering beachcomber.

The trouble is Svich just doesn’t know when to quit. Artistically, if not in life, brevity is the soul of wit—it’s also the soul of pain, shame, longing, rank passion and bitterness. The cast makes a valiant effort to sustain their dreamy or fervent monologues but, sooner or later, one speech about the terrible things love makes you do eventually sounds much like another. While her characters hit high points expounding on overwrought passion, jealousy, possessiveness, dominance or feverish love, they also go on well past the point of interest. There can be little an actor can do to circumvent the ennui that sets in. Once the panderer turns out the Second Son, McLaren and Thomas deliver an interesting and amusing riff/sales pitch that serves as social commentary. Van Meter pointedly encapsulates his bitter sexual dependency on the Woman he must share with the First Son. Black captures the dark, ritualistic evil of the Woman who reflects Medea. But all in all, the very excessiveness of the script besets the production.

D'wayne Taylor and Samantha Gleisten in Brutal Imagination

Brutal Imagination, on the other hand, gets right to the point. “I’m not the hero of this piece,” says Mr. Zero (D’Wayne Taylor), “I’m only a story, a thought, a solution to a problem.” Susan Smith’s (Samantha Gleisten) problem is that she has murdered her children and now tries to cover it up with a fictitious story of a black man hijacking her car and driving away with her boys in the back seat. For a short while, Mr. Zero is her cover–based on a true incident of “racial hoax” that took place in Union, South Carolina in 1994.

Brutal Imagination explores the racism behind Smith’s “necessary fiction,” examining it from all angles as it goes step by step through the whole nine days of a small Southern community thrown into the turmoil of the police searching for the children and the black man in question. Susan Smith receives support with prayer vigils and rallies, while Union’s African American community is put on notice with arrest after arrest of suspected black men.

Eady cunningly pairs Susan with her fiction, Mr. Zero, like a couple in danger of coming apart as the truth unravels. For the most part, the play is Taylor’s and he exhibits exemplary versatility with difficult exposition, not only pertaining to his character, but also a string of images of black men, from Uncle Tom to Buckwheat to Stepin Fetchit to Stagolee. Yet, Gleisten holds her ground with her frail, nervous depiction of Smith–sanctimonious in her portrayal herself as a mournfully desperate mother, pathetic once the sheriff suspects her of the crime. Susan and Mr. Zero’s final waltz before the truth separates them is a shrewd touch on the part of Beck’s direction. The racism that brought these two together colors their last swan song. Now, this is a bad romance we can all relate too, as American as apple pie and Aunt Jemima syrup.

   
Ratings:
  
  Brutal Imagination   ★★★
          
  Wreckage   ★★½
    
     

Samantha Gleisten and D'Wayne Taylor in Brutal Imagination

  
  

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Review: From Generation to Generation (Genesis Theatricals)

     
     

Genesis generates amateurish night of theatre

     
     

From Generation to Generation - Genesis Theatricals poster

  
Genesis Theatricals presents
  
From Generation to Generation
   
Book by Karen Sokolof Javitch and Elaine Jabenis
Music and Lyrics by Karen Sokolof Jatitch
Directed by David Zak
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The basic premise behind From Generation to Generation, the newest musical offering from Genesis Theatrical Productions, is solid. An old, ailing woman battles time to record everything she wants to tell a granddaughter she may never meet. In execution, the show, penned by Karen Sokolof Javitch and Elaine Jabenis and directed by David Zak (artistic director for the old Bailiwick), is hobbled by a lame script and a tendency to dumb down anything challenging. Leaving Stage 773, I was left wondering how this show got productions on both coasts already (and, apparently, awards). This is not a world premier, just a Chicago premier. Not only are there new musicals out there that dig deeper, there are sappy, easy shows that do sentimentality better.

It should be mentioned first that the cast puts a lot of heart out on the stage—I would be amiss to call them lethargic or disinterested. But they are fighting to keep adrift a boat that sunk before it left the harbor.

Javitch and Jabenis’ tale (Javitch also composed) revels in Jewish tradition and culture, throwing out Yiddish aphorisms and staging several ceremonies. The protagonist Rose (the lovable Susan Veronika Adler) even begins the show with a conversation with the Lord, a la Fiddler. But Joseph Stein’s classic contains far more dramatic heft and emotional vigor. From Generation to Generation forgets its premise halfway through, instead choosing to dally in a loose collection of memories until randomly slamming the lid close on the story. Along the way, the writers try to jerk some tears or get those gears of nostalgia churning. There’s a song where the old ladies remember how great things were in “simpler times”—hula hoops, Audrey Hepburn, etc. Quite a few slap-your-forehead obvious sections abound, along with several unintentionally funny moments. Other choices come out of nowhere, like a doo-wop tribute to former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Mier?

Rose’s story could be very touching—she struggles with terminal cancer and faces the harrowing fact that she may not live merely nine months more to see the birth of her granddaughter. There are more possible layers to Rose; she’s a widow and a faithful Jew, even in her bleak circumstances. Here, however, she gets inexplicably better and the heartfelt messages become more of a “remember that one time…” game between Rose and her friends, then her health inexplicably deteriorates again. It’s as if the creators forgot she was sick and then remembered her fatal illness when there were two scenes left to go. The two hour running time could probably be cut in half and we’d still get the general plot.

Zak’s cast does about as well as a show like this can let them. Many of them still pander to the audience (like Michelle McKenzie-Voigt as Rose’s zany best friend, Norma), set on showing us how much fun they are having. Others are woefully miscast into roles twenty years older than their range, such as Kris Hyland, struggling as the unconvincing former hippie Eliot, and Bobby Arnold as an embittered, anti-Semitic coach. The most satisfying performance in the show is Ashley Stein as Marsha, Rose’s daughter. Adler can carry the show, but she rushes moments and often fails to make true connections with the other actors.

This show would be fine if it came to your local synagogue and starred your neighbors. That’s where it belongs, in communities that need all the theatre they can get. Unfortunately, Chicago is not one of those towns. There’s a high bar, and at $30 a ticket, there are some high expectations. Genesis simply does not deliver.

   
  
Rating: ★½
  
   

From Generation to Generation continues at Stage 773 through May 1st, with performances Sundays Thursdya through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $30, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-327-5252. 

  
  

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Review: Changes (Chicago Tap Theatre)

  
  

It’s bizarre. It’s fun. It’s tap-opera!

  
  

Changes - Chicago Tap Theatre 01

  
Chicago Tap Theatre presents
   
Changes
  
Choreographed by Mark Yonally
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through March 20  |  tickets: $18-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

I’m not sure if there is a huge audience out there for “tap opera,” it’s an odd idea and it sometimes the ideas behind it conflict with each other. Chicago Tap Theatre claims to have pioneered/invented/discovered the art form, so each show, they seem to say is an experiment. To be honest, I never really thought of tap dance as a storytelling medium—it feels far better suited for the Lawrence Welk Show. But the talented dancers tapping their hearts out with CTT proved me wrong when I saw their Changes. It’s a non-verbal, all tap “opera” about alien genocide, set to the music of David Bowie. Yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.

Changes - Chicago Tap Theatre 04Changes works far better than it should. A race of happy aliens is betrayed by one of their own to a race of angry, power hungry aliens. Major Tom, Bowie’s astronaut muse, rockets to the same planet, meets the afflicted inhabitants, and works on setting things straight. It’s safe to say it’s a pretty simple narrative, and one safe for children. But the innovative tap dancing adds layer and character—these folks are acting through their feet. And CTT chose a good mix of Bowie, including “Fame,” “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Starman.” The zonked-out lyrics and spacey melodies gel with the story being told. The songs actually construct and inform the story as much as the dancing. For the most part, everything fits together decently. Founders of the style, Chicago Tap knows what they’re doing.

There are several leaks in CTT’s ship. None completely derail the production, but I wouldn’t call Changes the epitome of “tap opera.” But it sure is a great experiment.

Mark Yonally’s choreography matches up with the music well most of the time, but there are several moments where the thunderous tapping overpowers Bowie’s more subtle tunes. Maybe I’m biased, but I see tap as a happy enterprise. Yonally and the dancers stretch to find dramatic weight in their tapping, and some more serious moments don’t fly. However, CTT is able to make tap far more expressive than I thought possible. Again, they’re still discovering the form.

Another problem with the show is that dancers give up their characters whenever the stepping stops. When a song fades out, they devolve into amateurish pantomimes, usually involving a lot of pointing and smiling. I know I shouldn’t expect Steppenwolf-quality acting from a show about aliens and David Bowie. But the singers don’t stop acting after their arias in real operas, why should tap opera be any different? Call me nitpicky, but having some consistency would make a big difference.

     
Changes - Chicago Tap Theatre 02 Changes - Chicago Tap Theatre 06
Changes - Chicago Tap Theatre 07 Changes - Chicago Tap Theatre 08

Still, Changes is two tons of fun. It’s flashy, accessible, and short. Yet, there is some serious talent at Stage 773. Richard Ashworth’s Major Tom, especially, has some serious moves. His jerky, rolling spacewalk to “Space Oddity” is one of the best moments of the show. The simple yet effective set contains a few surprises, too.

One reason to go to Changes is just so you can say you witnessed a tap opera. I don’t know if it is the future of tap or opera. It may not be a sustainable genre, but CTT sure tries their hardest to put it out there. There’s something valiant about that. These people have a story to tell and a fascinating way to tell it—one that doesn’t rely on heavily produced projections. Instead, they use their bodies and their feet. Then there’s Bowie, who’s weird enough to glue everything together. It’s so bizarre, which is maybe why it works so well.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Changes - Chicago Tap Theatre 03

 

CTT Dancers: Christina Merrill, Jenna Deidel, Jennifer Pfaff, Kendra Jorstad, Kirsten Williams, Laura Chiuve, Molly Stoltz, Phil Brooks, Richard Ashworth, Stacy Milam

  

  
     

Review: Meet John Doe (Porchlight Musical Theatre)

     
     

‘John Doe’ Gets the Job Half Done

     
     

MJD--Jim Sherman (Connell) and Sean Effinger-Dean (Beany)

  
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
   
Meet John Doe
  
Music/Book by Andrew Gerle
Lyrics/Book by
Eddie Sugarman
Directed/Choreographed by
James Beaudry
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $38  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Nothing sets the tone for Porchlight Music Theatre’s Meet John Doe like its foreboding, expressionist set design (Ian Zywica). Stage right, a bold graphic sticks out from a wall of newsprint: “JOBLESS MEN KEEP MOVING–We can’t take care of our own.” Now, if that doesn’t lock and load your head for a Depression Era period piece, nothing else will. Andrew Gerle (music) and Eddie Sugarman’s (lyrics) musical follows through with ample period perfection–from driven pace, to musical style, to its tough and cocky dialogue. James Beaudry’s direction accents the production’s expressionistic edge, framing the action, whether in crowd scenes or backroom MJD--Karl Hamilton (John Doe) and Elizabeth Lanza (Ann Mitchell)conferences, so that the show’s language hits right between the eyes about our own desperate political and economic plight. Fabricated news stories, populist heroes spun out of thin air, media manipulation of the masses by cynical moguls–and a down and out populace looking for any flicker of hope to lead them. Everything old is new again.

Porchlight could not have picked a timelier musical. In some ways, it contains improvements on Frank Capra’s 1941 film. For one, the musical’s Ann Mitchell (Elizabeth Lanza) is a much tougher, moxie-er, foxier newshound than her original film version played by Barbara Stanwyck. Given the pink slip during her newspaper’s takeover and transition to the New American Times, Ann submits her final column with a fake letter from “John Doe”—a man so sickened by the current economic downturn he threatens to commit suicide in protest by jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. Lanza has the voice, the sass and the legs to pull off her role and she’s not afraid to use them—a point she more than drives home with the song “I’m Your Man.”

Once circulation jumps in response to the letter, Ann restores her job by devising a whole series of columns based on John Doe. Out of a mass of jobless men, she and her world-weary editor, Connell (Jim Sherman), pick out a former bush league ball player to be their John Doe (Karl Hamilton). Hamilton definitely brings that Everyman vibe that they—and we–go for, but it’s his rich tenor voice that awakens sympathy and warmth to John Doe’s reintegration into showered, shaved and employed life once more, with “I Feel Like a Man Again.”

Unfortunately, for all the attention it has gained at Ford’s Theatre in 2007 with seven Helen Hayes nominations and with the 2006 Jonathan Larson Award, Meet John Doe still feels half finished. The first act is a beauty. Beaudry’s direction builds its tension with consummate skill and his taut cast carves its dramatic arc in expressionist stone. From the opening moments, where the terror every newsman has for his job is quite palpable – to John Doe’s escape from his first public speech – the first act is non-stop, smart and tough entertainment. In between, Lanza and Hamilton solidly sketch the growing relationship between Ann and John, while John’s hobo friend, the Colonel (Rus Rainear), adds much needed salt to the proceedings. Finally, even with a limited voice, Mick Weber gives us a smooth MJD--Elizabeth Lanza as Ann Mitchelland seductive menace as D.B. Norton, who sits atop of his new newspaper like an American Silvio Berlusconi, ready to manipulate John Doe’s image to further his political ambitions.

It’s the second act that doesn’t know where to go with this build-up. In part, this has to do with over-reliance on Capra’s plot.  In other sections, however, Gerle and Sugarman’s book diverges from it counter-intuitively. Capra himself changed the ending to his film five times before he settled on its own muddled and unsatisfactory finish. Suffice it to say that suicide, far from being painless, is actually a downer, whether for a musical’s uplifting final moments or for a real-life social movement. Therefore, John Doe’s final self-sacrificing act might make psychological sense for the character, but not for the unity of the crowd after he does it. Act Two contains choice moments, like Connell’s gorgeous reminiscence of his WWI army service with “Lighthouses” or the verbal hits John Doe delivers against Norton’s cadre of privileged, slime-ball cronies. But on the whole, it’s rewrite time once again for this plotline. Time once again for John Doe to re-create himself—let’s hope for his sake, and ours–that that he gets it right.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
  

MJD--Elizabeth Lanza (Ann Mitchell) and Jim Sherman (Connell)

All photos by Johnny Knight

           
           

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